Time Management for Meal Planning
Time Management is part two of our nutrition series focused on meal planning and preparation. Nutrition is a major contributor to your fitness journey. Connecting this piece will help you understand the big picture and more effectively reach your strength training goals.
Life is full of irony. As I write this article on Time Management in meal prepping, I have been bombarded with life events, schedule changes, and time-sensitive issues. Needless to say, this topic has given me a good dose of my own medicine and tested my real-life applications.
I will share with you what I have learned. Planning as much as you can is better than not planning at all. I would also say, you must be willing to accept the fact that there are some days, even WEEKS, that just do not go as planned. So, let's plan for that and not be thrown into a tizzy when those times come. Don't beat yourself up over it, do your best in the moment. This is where I have found myself relying a lot on my frozen staples, 90-second rice, rotisserie chickens, or canned tuna. And you know what? It's fine! Maybe not the tastiest but it gets the job done.
Obviously, we want to plan for healthy meals and consistency. We like hitting our macros and food group varieties. But I would say if we are on track 80% of the time we are going to reap the benefits of consistency and it will help us pivot when things don't go as planned. Being able to say, “this is what's happening, this is what I can do, and this is what I can't do right now”, will help us see the situation as a whole instead of fixating on the negative.
We may feel like we failed in the moment, but remember it is just one moment. We can start again, try again, make a new plan or pick up where we left off with the old one. Everyone fails. I have failed a LOT this past month. But I know why I failed and where I can pivot to hopefully avoid those issues in the future. It is really easy to think to ourselves, "I messed up today/this meal/this weekend... so I'll just try again next week", instead, let’s say to ourselves "I didn't hit the mark today/this meal/this weekend, but how can I get back on track starting next meal?"
Giving ourselves vague timelines for success will not hold us to high standards for consistency. Call it what it is. Yes, I dropped the ball grocery shopping and meal planning this week, but I'm making an Instacart list right now and will pick up my groceries after work. The old saying of "if we fail to plan, we plan to fail" has merit. Just "winging it" is not a successful long-term strategy when it comes to a healthy diet or fitness lifestyle.
I will say, some people have incredible discipline and consistency, and a lot of IFBB pros come to mind. That is their life and profession. It is an inspiration, certainly! If that is your goal and passion, then go all in, but I think for a lot of us, being the best we can be in our everyday lives is an accomplishment. So, if you've meal prepped all week and have a weekend with your kids at the park, or at a birthday dinner with friends or family, live in that moment. Enjoy that moment for what it is. Don't become fixated on perfection that you forget to live life in the moments you only get once.
Ok, so after a nice reality check, let’s get back in the positive, best case scenario mindset… Meal prepping doesn’t have to be an all-day, every-day marathon! Meal planning and prep can be made easier by planning out meals ahead of time and using the freezer, pantry, and fridge to your advantage.
First of all, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.
When I say “meal prepping”, I’m referring to the more time-intensive phase where we are cooking large amounts of certain foods, also known as “batch cooking”.
To get started, decide what you want to eat that week. I have to say, honestly, if you are fine with eating the same types of foods a few times per week it makes meal prepping A LOT EASIER and cheaper (ground turkey and rice anyone?).
I like to choose 2-3 proteins, 2-3 grains, fruits or starchy veggies and a couple of fresh fibrous non-starchy veggie options along with frozen, steam-ready veggies. This allows you to make a few different meal combinations and get different micronutrients from various foods.
For example Chicken and Tilapia (proteins), sweet potatoes, blueberries, and rice (carbs) and spinach, broccoli, or asparagus (non-starchy veggies), and a bag or two of frozen broccoli and/or green beans. Ok, so how would we put this together in an appealing way? An important aspect of cooking is proper pairing. Assuming you will be reheating a fair amount of these meals, you don’t want to overcook certain foods.
Time hacks! Cook your sweet potatoes and chicken at the same time. Set two timers, the shorter one for the chicken (maybe 20-25 minutes), the longer one for the sweet potatoes (45min typically). Potatoes can withstand re-heating pretty well, chicken does too, so long as you did not over-cook it the first time. Ground turkey or beef also tends to reheat well, provided you have a little fat and moisture in the reheating process. A digital oven thermometer will help you not overcook certain proteins.
Consider using a crockpot, to keep moisture in your proteins. Crockpot chicken is very tender and the moisture is retained.
Asparagus, kale, and even broccoli can be “blanched” to quickly soften the stalks and then dunked into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Blanching helps to start the cooking process but also allows veggies to maintain a bit of a bite event after a microwave re-heat finishes the cooking/steaming process. Blanching is literally dunking something in boiling water for maybe 1-2 minutes if you have a very thick vegetable stalk. Remove from the boiling water and dunk into ice-cold water. You will retain a lot of nutrients and stop the cooking process this way.
Cook your rice, quinoa, barley, etc. on the stovetop while your proteins and potatoes are baking in the oven. Grains usually take anywhere from 12-25 minutes to cook on the stove.
As far as seasonings are concerned, everyone has a different preference so season based on what you know you like, but I would caution being heavy-handed with the salt shaker. Excess sodium in the diet is not recommended from a cardiovascular health standpoint.
Alright, your food is now cooked and ready to be portioned for your meals.
A good pantry and freezer are going to help you as well when you find yourself in a pinch, which we all do from time to time. For example, if you forgot to defrost your chicken for meal prep, have a few cans of tuna as a backup. Have a few bags of 90-second steamable rice, and of course frozen veggies, and you will have a meal in a few minutes. No, this is not a James Beard Award winning meal, I get that, but if you are trying to stick to a plan, hit certain macros, etc. you have to think ahead and plan for different scenarios. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
So, if you don’t want to be eating canned tuna with a side of microwaved rice and soggy broccoli…plan ahead (I can say this because I’ve eaten this before, recently, not one of my finer culinary creations).
There is always the option of getting a meal kit, or meal delivery service.
If you like to cook, or are wanting to learn to cook, a pre-planned meal kit would be a great option. Easy-to-follow recipes and visuals will help you get familiar with the kitchen. However, you do need about 30 minutes or more in most cases to get the meals prepared. A fresh, hot cooked meal from scratch that requires no shopping or planning and usually yields two servings (leftovers!), other than choosing the recipes on the kit’s website. Super easy! A few of those meal kits are Blue Apron, Home Chef, Purple Carrot (plant-based), Sunbasket, Hello Fresh just to name a few.
The other time-saving option would be pre-cooked, frozen delivered meals. These are the ultimate time-saving meal options and only require choosing the meals on the website based on your preferences. A few of the ready-to-go meals are Freshly, Daily Harvest, Fresh and Easy, Fresh n Lean, Mega Fit Meals, Flex Pro, Eat Clean Bro, and Trifecta. Again this is not an exhaustive list, and I am not sponsored or paid by any of these listed, they are just examples of the different types of meal companies out there. Salude!
About the author Jessie Gall, MS, RD, LD
Jess is a Metro-Atlanta-based dietitian in the state of Georgia with 8 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian in the hospital setting, as well as corporate wellness events, and individual counseling. She received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from Georgia State University and is a Licensed and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Jess enjoys helping her patients have the “lightbulb moments” in their nutrition care and recommendations. Her “food philosophy” is that food is functional and fun! Eating for health does not have to be boring or tasteless. All things in moderation make for a more enjoyable, and healthy relationship with food. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, but there are research-based recommendations, and she enjoys helping each patient/client find what works for their lifestyle, goals, and needs. Jess is also an NPC Bikini division competitor, NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, and mother of twin boys.